28 December 2014

Space Opera, with some restrictions

When younger I was a major fan of Space Opera type science fiction. Jack Vance (died in 2014) was my favorite in this genre, but I read Asimov (of course), Niven, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Fred Pohl, even somewhat lesser (IMO) lights like Poul Anderson, Fred Saberhagen (who, like Vance, also wrote "Fantasy"), Greg Bear, David Brin, and Greg Benford (the latter still writing). To name a few. I really liked, more recently, Iain Banks, who also died in 2014, at 60, of ravaging cancer. Banks also wrote middling-interest mainstream novels, and was part of a little school of Scottish writers, including Charles Stross and Ken McLeod, although, in my estimation, he was far and away the best of them. George RR Martin, Ursula Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, C. J. Cherryh... well, not so much. For the most part, this kind of fiction requires you to suspend incredulousness a bit... most call for adopting the view that FTL (Faster than Light travel) will be possible, or at least that you have to assume its possibility for purposes of the story.

I admire the kind of Science Fiction that makes no assumptions about reality that don't make physical sense (for reasons I've tried to explain on here, FTL does NOT make physical sense; search for "FTL."). Benford, for example, as tried to write in this vein, and there was some fiction in the "golden age" that stuck to those kinds of strictures. But, in truth, science fiction without galaxy spanning spaceships tends to be a little dull, especially since the genre as a whole has always been a little weak in the vivid character and compelling dramatic situation department.

But I admit there is always a nagging annoyance in the back of my mind. For reasons I've also tried to explore on the Gyromantic, if some version of the "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" universes were real, or really possible, it is highly unlikely that we, here on Planet Earth, would have remained unmolested by galactic visitors for lo these billions of years. Which every indication is that our planet has been. Unmolested, that is. There is no evidence at all, still less credible evidence, that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials. (It isn't impossible, but there is no evidence for it).

So fiction where there are dozens or hundreds of spacefaring civilizations invading, trading, colonizing, etc. all over the Galaxy is actually totally preposterous, even if it is entertaining. Let me be clear on this point. The Galaxy is big, but not Vast, in the sense of the Vastness of Borges's Great Library. There are billions of worlds. Maybe even billions of life bearing worlds. But if you had the ability to travel arbitrarily faster than light, and a desire to explore, a civilization would take no more than a few hundred thousand, at most a few million, years to visit every single star in the Galaxy. And the same would be true of every other Galaxy in the universe, which are all roughly the same age, over ten billion years old. So the notion that for some appreciable fraction of the last few hundred million years, during which the universe has, by and large, looked much the same as it does now, there have been Galaxy Spanning supercivilizations arising, warring with one another, trading with one another, exploring, searching for suitable stars for colonizing, etc.... is just not plausible. (Not to mention that if you really think about it it makes no economic or any other kind of sense to go around searching for planets to live on... if you had that kind of technology you could just use resources to construct habitats in space, as many science fiction writers, notably Banks and Niven, have explored in considerable detail).

But the reality that the universe if most likely full of life, that other worlds do in fact exist and most likely intelligent life as well, even if very far away, remains speculative (except for the other worlds part, which is now fact), but the whole picture seems more and more likely as time goes on. So there really is a fantastic reality which may eventually be the stage for the next chapters of human history, including, very possibly, the story of contact with other intelligent beings.

So that's the real challenge for science fiction: to tell stories set in a plausible universe, where strange and wonderful things that actually are, or at least could conceivably be, possible,  occur. Writers may posit new physics and strange structures to the universe to make seemingly miraculous things happen, but, to satisfy this niggling objection of mine, they need to somehow account for what is: namely we live on a world where there has been no space visitation (that we know of) for billions of years, and when we look out into the Great Dark, we see no evidence of others or their constructions. Where are they? And how might they exist and yet so far have left no sign?

I would like to try my hand at a story line that attempts to plot a course through this narrow strait, and still tell a story of wonders, including civilizations who have also arisen in this vast universe, and with whom now unknown means may be found to make contact, for better or worse.

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